EADS looks to nanotechnology as it re-examines the potential for emissions-free hydrogen fuels in aviation
The Cryoplane of the future as envisaged in 2004: Four litres of liquid hydrogen are required to store the same amount of energy contained in just a single litre of kerosene
Wed 16 Feb 2011 – The concept of using liquid hydrogen as a clean alternative to jet kerosene has been studied and found wanting by aerospace researchers down the years. The EU-funded, Airbus-led Cryoplane project concluded in 2004 that hydrogen fuel was a long-term prospect but aircraft would require fuel tanks four times larger than today and the larger exterior surface areas would increase energy consumption by up to 14 per cent. The additional costs involved in producing and storing the fuel were also said to be enormous, with high energy requirements and so reduced environmental benefit, and little progress has been made since except in fuel cell technology. However, EADS Innovation Works, the corporate research arm of EADS – the parent company of Airbus – says it is to work with university researchers to find out whether nanotechnology could provide the answer to the storage problem, although it concedes powering airliners with hydrogen is still only a distant possibility.
Hydrogen is a clean fuel that produces only water on combustion – so zero carbon emissions – or when combined with oxygen in a fuel cell to produce electrical power. Researchers are looking at using such fuel cells to power electrical systems on board aircraft or even auxiliary power units (APUs).
However, as a fuel it can be expensive and difficult to store safely. In addition, to store hydrogen as a gas demands high volumes, while to store as a liquid increases weight and the energy requirement. The rate of transfer from the storage tank to a fuel cell or engine is also slow.
Chemists at the University of Glasgow are now working with EADS using nanotechnology to alter the design and material composition of a storage tank with the aim of making it so efficient that it will be feasible to use solid state hydrogen on an industrial scale for aeroplanes and cars. The nanotechnology is a new design under development by Hydrogen Horizons, a Scottish-registered start-up company.
Duncan Gregory, the university’s Professor of Inorganic Materials, said: “Using new active nanomaterials in combination with novel storage tank design principles presents a hugely exciting opportunity to address the considerable challenges of introducing hydrogen as a fuel for aviation. This collaboration between engineers and chemists and between industry and academia provides the pathway to achieve this.”
If the developments to the tank structure are successful, EADS is planning to fly an un-manned hydrogen-powered test plane in 2014.
“Replacing traditional hydrocarbon-based fuels with pollution-free hydrogen in aeroplane and car engines would deliver huge benefits to the environment because carbon emissions would be dramatically reduced,” said Dr-Ing Agata Godula-Jopek, Fuel Cells Expert in the EADS Power Generation Team, which is coordinating the programme for the company.
Funding is coming from the Materials Knowledge Transfer Network – part of the UK Technology Strategy Board – and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
EADS Innovation Works and Professor Gregory’s team are also seeking funding from the European Union to build a European-wide team of academic and industrial partners to examine the wider issues relating to using hydrogen on an industrial scale to power aeroplane and car engines. While there is a strong potential for the adoption of fuel cells into the portable fuel cells market, key barriers to delivering this are the safe, efficient and cost-effective storage of hydrogen. The research project, if approved, would explore how best to deliver a practical solid state hydrogen solution for portable and micro fuel cell systems.
An EADS spokesman accepted it was not realistic to look at powering commercial airliners with hydrogen fuel for the time being, “but we have to look into it.” He said EADS would continue its research into the development of algae as a source for sustainable alternative fuels – last year, EADS ran a series of light aircraft demonstration flights using algae-derived fuel at the ILA Air Show in Germany – and the organisation was looking to set up a small pilot plant with an industrial partner.